Twentieth-century neuroscience has discovered something truly amazing: namely that your brain can change itself well into adulthood. While in the early 1900s it was assumed that the brain ceased changing in adolescence, we now are aware that the brain responds to change all throughout life.
To appreciate how your brain changes, think of this comparison: picture your typical daily route to work. Now picture that the route is blocked and how you would behave. You wouldn’t just surrender, turn around, and go home; instead, you’d look for an substitute route. If that route happened to be more efficient, or if the primary route remained closed, the new route would become the new routine.
Synonymous processes are manifesting in your brain when a “normal” function is obstructed. The brain reroutes its processing along new paths, and this re-routing process is described as neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity is useful for mastering new languages, new skills like juggling, or new healthier behavior. Eventually, the physical changes to the brain correspond to the new habits and once-difficult tasks become automatic.
Unfortunately, while neuroplasticity can be advantageous, there’s another side that can be detrimental. While learning new skills and healthy habits can make a favorable impact on our lives, learning bad habits can have the opposite effect.
Neuroplasticity and Hearing Loss
Hearing loss is a good example of how neuroplasticity can backfire. As described in The Hearing Review, researchers from the University of Colorado discovered that the part of the brain committed to hearing can become reorganized and reassigned to different functions, even with beginning-stage hearing loss. This is thought to clarify the interconnection between hearing loss and cognitive decline.
With hearing loss, the parts of our brain in charge of other capabilities, like vision or touch, can solicit the under-utilized segments of the brain in charge of hearing. Because this decreases the brain’s available resources for processing sound, it damages our ability to comprehend speech.
Therefore, if you have hearing loss and find yourself saying “what was that?” a lot, it’s not only because of the injury to your inner ear—it’s partly caused by the structural changes to your brain.
How Hearing Aids Can Help
Similar to most things, there is a simultaneously a negative and a positive side to our brain’s capacity to change. While neuroplasticity aggravates the effects of hearing loss, it also increases the performance of hearing aids. Your brain can grow new connections, regenerate cells, and reroute neural paths. As a result, enhanced stimulation from hearing aids to the parts of the brain responsible for hearing will promote growth and development in this area.
In fact, a newly published long-term study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society determined that utilizing hearing aids lessens cognitive decline in people with hearing loss. The study, titled Self-Reported Hearing Loss: Hearing Aids and Cognitive Decline in Elderly Adults: A 25-year Study, followed 3,670 adults age 65 and older over a 25 year period. The study found that the rate of cognitive decline was higher in those with hearing loss compared to those with healthy hearing. But the participants with hearing loss who utilized hearing aids exhibited no difference in the rate of cognitive decline when compared to those with normal hearing.
The beauty of this study is that it verifies what we already know regarding neuroplasticity: that the brain will reorganize itself in accordance to its needs and the stimulation it receives.
Keeping Your Brain Young
In conclusion, research shows that the brain can change itself all throughout life, that hearing loss can accelerate cognitive decline, and that wearing hearing aids can prevent or minimize this decline.
But hearing aids can accomplish much more than that. As reported by brain plasticity expert Dr. Michael Merzenich, you can strengthen your brain function irrespective of age by partaking in challenging new activities, keeping yourself socially active, and practicing mindfulness, among other methods.
Hearing aids can help with this too. Hearing loss has a tendency to make people withdraw socially and can have an isolating effect. But by wearing hearing aids, you can ensure that you stay socially active and continue to stimulate the sound processing and language areas of your brain.